Science fiction and fantasy
The Clan of the Cave Bear
by Jean M. Auel
Ayla survives the cave lion's attack and is nursed to health by Iza, the Clan's medicine woman. They are searching for a new cave. Events conspire so that Ayla comes to be regarded as some sort of lucky charm by some of the clan members. The first description of these Neanderthals is more suggestive of our primate cousins than homo sapiens sapiens. But the author then goes on to describe their very rich spiritual life. This is led by Creb, the group's holy man or Mog - ur.
The Mog - ur is deformed but greatly respected, and it is under his protection that Ayla thrives. But she soon makes an implacable enemy of Broud, the son of the chief and heir apparent. She is different, and the clan's customs do not come as second nature to her. Not least, the female's unquestioning subservience to the men of the clan is difficult for her.
I don't know whether Neanderthals really did have a patriarchal society, but this is a very pro-feminist story. It is the past seen through a late twentieth-century lens. First published in 1980, this is a book of its time, a period when women's issues were of primary concern.
On the whole the story seems to be very well researched, from the description of a mammoth hunt to the details of the clothes they wore and the food they ate. There is one glaring piece of fantasy amongst the authentic setting: with the use of datura, the clan are able to go into a collective trance and access the memories of their ancestors as well as their own. With small frontal lobes and large brains, it is reasonable to assume that Neanderthals relied on memory more than modern humans do. But knowing past, and even future memories breaks the sense of realism that would have been built up if you were to discount their spiritual beliefs as mere tribal superstition. The element of magic would have been better if it had been introduced as real at the beginning rather than quite a way in, so the reader has a handle on when to suspend disbelief and what to treat with scepticism.
Clan of the Cave Bear is the first of a planned series of six books. The author has clearly taken her time crafting the Earth's Children series. This book finishes with the promise of more to come in the ongoing epic. It's long, escapist, and about as far from the modern world as you could hope. It allows the reader to have one-up on the protagonists because their levels of technology and knowledge of the world was so inferior to our own. It demands emotional involvement rather than powers of deductive thinking. If you fancy reading a deep, involved saga that is different from the usual genres, and you have plenty of time on your hands, this would be a good choice.
If you like this, try:Evolution by Stephen Baxter
This is the epic story of the primates, as they evolve from tiny mammals into the humans who would shape and dominate the world, and beyond.